By Tricia and Brian Gast
‘T is a fearful thing
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream
And oh, to lose.
– Judah Halevi or Emmanuel of Rome
We celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary last month in Southern Spain. Specifically, we celebrated the friendship, support, depth and intimacy of our relationship. We celebrated the feeling that in some ways our relationship is just getting going and we wonder about its potential.
Relationships are often challenging. The first five years of our marriage were not as good as the last five. Yet we are not the same people now that we were in our thirties. We’ve each grown and we relate differently. Our relationship has worked in spite of us in some ways and because of us in others. Something put us together and keeps us together—perhaps it is wonder and gratitude for the gift of our continued investment in what we have. We haven’t discovered a magic formula for marriage but we keep coming back to three interrelated ingredients that steer us in a good direction.
Dedicating Ourselves to Personal Growth. About 15 or 20 years ago we began to realize that we were never going to make each other happy, that we needed to learn to do that for ourselves. We now know that we are each responsible for our own emotional states and working through our upset is part of the richness and purpose of life. Relationships offer plenty of upsets to learn from. It’s in relationship that we discover our “work,” where we are called to heal, resolve or integrate in order to become more conscious and therefore more ourselves. For example, when Brian is convinced beyond any doubt that Tricia is the problem, the problem is usually Brian and vice versa. We have learned to use each other to get glimpses of our personal shadows, those unconscious aspects of ourselves that suddenly make us want to throw a defensive remark or at least a heavy object at a loved one.
Partners don’t focus on the other’s shadow side when they are falling in love. It’s during this initial courting phase that at some level we unconsciously choose the perfect partner that will help us grow. When the honeymoon is over and we can see each of our shadows, we start pushing each other’s buttons and we’re off to the races, inviting each other to wake up and work through our blind spots. For example, we both noticed that we had entered into an unconscious agreement to stay a safe emotional distance apart, better to stay safe than to risk getting hurt was our unspoken mantra. Five years into our marriage we realized we both needed a lot of basic emotional training and to start taking more risk by disclosing just how important we were to each other.
Offering Unconditional Acceptance. We both have a history of being hard on ourselves. Tricia internalizes it and Brian becomes outwardly critical. If we can point to one thing that has helped our marriage it has been being more self-accepting because it has led to greater levels of acceptance of each other. Unconditional acceptance of another person comes with emotional maturity and a lot of self-awareness; it means someone has done his or her work. Acceptance allows us to both open our hearts and to realize our potential as people. Given that it’s those we love who drive us crazy, acceptance of family members and partners is the work of saints.
On those few days each year when we’re rested, well-fed and not stressed by important things like remembering it’s recycle pickup day or deciding who will drop off the car to get fixed, we can give each other the gift of being fully present, patient and accepting. If we practice enough on the low-stress days and learn to be gentler with ourselves we can develop our ability to reach deep into our reservoirs of self-love and avoid taking things personally when the other is being a shit.
Acceptance pairs nicely with compassionate communication that doesn’t feel judgmental and is devoid of a sneaky obsession of trying to determine scientifically who is right and who is wrong. Acceptance lets other marinate in their own experience and grants them full permission to decide if they want to change. It’s Tricia’s unwavering acceptance then that allows Brian to step into an extraordinarily fragile feeling as he reveals what’s really going on inside. And it’s in that revelation that we both heal and move to a new level of open-heartedness and authenticity.
Choosing to Feel Vulnerable. Allowing and even supporting your partner to grow and change is vulnerable. To give your partner unconditional acceptance is vulnerable. Being vulnerable means that you are intentionally opening your heart and exposing yourself to the risk that you will get hurt. We have all been hurt at least once. Who jumps out of bed wanting to subject himself to present and potential pain? It’s human to minimize our risk and pursue the, “I will fall deeply for you once I know you are the one and you won’t hurt me” strategy. Five years into our marriage Tricia and I discovered we had a powerful unconscious agreement. “I won’t challenge you to get too vulnerable and committed if you don’t challenge me to do the same.” Tricia lost her dad when she was very young. Brian watched his parents’ marriage disintegrate when he was a teen. We were signing up for the low-risk marriage program and we knew we were playing in the shallow end of the marriage pool.
Vulnerability means you choose to love what can be lost. Vulnerability means you are transparent and that you disclose your real feelings and thoughts. Early in our marriage neither of us knew how we felt let alone if have the tools to express our feelings. Vulnerability is more than just EQ and expression. It means we have developed enough self-acceptance to risk judgment and rejection, even of those unattractive, disowned parts of ourselves that we work so hard to keep hidden. As if that’s not enough, our current vulnerability practice focuses on increasing our capacity to receive praise, joy and connection.
With both of our children now in college we have new opportunities to cook up some new dishes with these three ingredients. Our work life, love life and daily routines are blank canvases. There is more individual and couple potential to be tapped. The question we asked each other last month is perhaps the question we always should ask each other, “How is the gift of our relationship calling us to be more fully ourselves?”